I loved “Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence”. We are not as smart as we think. The question the author asks is simple. What sort of intelligence actively participates in the drilling, draining and despoliation of the few remaining wildernesses on earth in the name of an idea of progress we already know to be doomed?
Climate and technology
The author would also question whether ai and/or technology will solve the climate crisis. After all, the AI that is currently being developed is the same corporate system responsible for the current crisis.
Our perspective on intelligence
We’re mostly talking about this kind of corporate intelligence and ignoring all the other kinds of things that AI – that any kind of intelligence – could be. We should really change the way we think about intelligence: what it is, how it acts on the world, and who possesses intelligence.
We are too narrow
The book blows you away with intelligence at the level of plants, birds, octopuses, monkeys, ants, dolphins, bees, trees and several others. It all depends on your perspective; the human perspective is arrogant, narrow and delusional. We are simply not the sole possessor of intelligence, and we need some serious reframing.
The book reminds me of “Inner engineering, a yogi’s guide to joy”. Everything is intelligent, and everything is connected. Each and every thing matters; everyone matters.
We are all connected
Suppose we are to address the wholesale despoliation of the planet and our growing helplessness in the face of vast computational power. In that case, we must find ways to reconcile our technological prowess and sense of human uniqueness with an earthy sensibility and an attentiveness to the interconnectedness of all things. If everything is connected, we need to accept and appreciate other ways of looking at things and different ways of making decisions. We are not separated from nature. We are all part of Gaia (which could be a supercomputer all by itself).
Ecosystem vs ego system
We need to respect the ecosystem we find ourselves in. And in that ecosystem, there are many what the author calls umwelt. The umwelt of the tick parasite, for example, consists of just three incredibly specialised facts or factors: the odour of butyric acid, which indicates the presence of an animal to feed upon; the temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, which indicates the presence of warm blood; and the hairiness of mammals, which it navigates to find its sustenance. From these three qualities, the tick’s whole universe blooms.
In a more-than-human world, it’s not only organisms which have an umwelt – everything does. Embodied as we are, with a different body pattern and pattern of awareness of plants, trees, animals, etc. We expect the solutions to problems to match our own patterns. Different tools for different bodies and different minds act in concert with those bodies. There are multiple types of intelligence, and it isn’t just about what’s going on between the ears.
More than human intelligence
We need to stop thinking about intelligence as something defined by human experience. Instead, from the outset, we must think about intelligence as something more-than-human. For example, octopuses learn, remember, know, think, consider and act based on their intelligence. Octopus brains are not situated, like ours, in their heads; instead, they are decentralised, with brains that extend throughout their bodies and into their limbs. Each of their arms contains bundles of neurons that act as independent minds, allowing them to move about and react of their own accord, unfettered by central control.
We all stem from tiny near-blind worms wriggling on the ocean floor. So does the octopus. Six hundred million years down the evolutionary tree – and 600 million up the other side too. The octopus eye is superior to ours in one notable way: because of the way they develop, the fibres of the optic nerves grow behind the retina rather than through it, meaning they lack the central blind spot common to all vertebrates. And if something as complex and adaptive as the eye can evolve more than once, then why can’t intelligence do the same?
The tree of evolution
Let’s imagine it this way: the tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has flowered everywhere. The intelligence of the octopus is one such flower. As Godfrey-Smith puts it, ‘Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. From the octopus, then, we learn several important things. First, there are many ways of ‘doing’ intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially. What if artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Read “Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence”.
Intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Animals possess all kinds of different signals and gestures that humans lack entirely, yet they can still communicate in complex and meaningful ways. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head – literally, in the case of the octopus, which does intelligence within its whole body. Lipton would suggest that our individual cells are intelligent. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest. Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested but something to be recognised in all the multiple forms that it takes. Intuition, quantum, multiverse, frequency, energy, spectrum, spirits, and all the other dimension and senses that are available.
The quantum field that permeates everything isn’t something tiny, something beneath everything else; rather, it is behind, in front, around, and entangled with the universe at every scale, right up to and exceeding our bodies. We live in this shifting, vibrating, scintillating field, even if we are not conscious of it.
We live in a microbial world of much deeper diversity than previously imagined and also a world of complex and intermingled relationships – not only among microbes but also between microscopic and macroscopic life. The human microbiome, the two kilograms or so of bacteria and other organisms we carry around with us – mostly in our gut – profoundly influences our awareness and behaviour. Human beings are a collection of interconnected communities at the micro level. We are a reflection of the world itself.
The book mentions a wide range of examples, and you will never be the same (or if you have read books such as “Metahuman”. The wood wide web, mycorrhiza, plants that can hear, have a brain and have memories, corn communicating at a frequency we cannot hear, Pando (the biggest organism in the world), shape-shifting DNA, lichens, spruce, honeyguides, dolphins, slime mould, ant colonies, etc. But also Turing, choice machines, oracle machines, the limitation and framing of language (another unwell), phytolinguists, therolinguist, geolinguists, intent, undecidability, water computers, Machina speculatrix, adaptive ultra stability, GAIA, cybernetics, stones, esoteric programming, memristors, soft robotics, biomimicry, metaphors, decentralisation, open source, roachbot, viable system models, ostracism, randomness, supercomputers, lava lamps, von Neumann’s bottleneck, I-Ching, mutation, recombination, genetic drift, queer theory, Citizens’ Assembly, and diversity.
It is all connected
We hear plants hear; we all hear together. We all feel the same sun, breathe the same air, and drink the same water. All intelligence is ecological – that is, entangled, relational, and of the world. See the world as a synergistic, self-regulating, complex system in which organic and inorganic matter interact with one another to co-produce the conditions for life on earth. In that context, profit and loss, winning and losing, control and dominance suggest that their ecological niche – the slice of the environment shaping their evolution – is somewhat narrow. Their learned responses are that of a corporate intelligence, evolving within the arid, airless ecology of neoliberal capitalism, tech company boardrooms and ever-increasing financial and social disparities.
When a world is governed by machines, our attention is forcibly attuned to the scale of the nanosecond and the breadth of a beam of light, and this makes it harder for us to think of and with other beings and processes which exist at different scales of time and geography: the turning of the seasons, the continental migration of birds, the lifespan of trees and plants. We, humans, live in such a narrow slice of time and space that we are incapable of thinking of or thinking at the pace and scale of the world, the changes we have wrought in it, and the changes we will have to make to survive them.
And so computer technologies have become another way in which we are continually estranged from our environment. Because all these machines share the same basic architecture, the same arrangement of processor and memory, and speak the same basic language: the ones and zeros of binary code. The world is not like a computer. There is a lot between zero and one. The world itself is, plainly, non-binary.
Computers are decision machines: they attempt to dominate the world by making models of it, and making decisions based on that model. All computers are simulators. We mistake our immediate perceptions for the world-as-it-is – but really, our conscious awareness is a moment-by-moment model, a constant process of re-appraisal and re-integration with the world as it presents itself to us.
We are chaos
Just as a deep dive into our evolutionary history – deploying the most finely tuned, sense-making apparatuses we have devised – reveals not a single answer to the question of life but a chaotic multiplicity of beings, so our closest approach to mathematical truths about the universe involves aligning ourselves with the most chaotic, the most unpredictable, the most random processes we can comprehend. As organisms grow larger and their complexity increases – with a corresponding decrease in internal randomness – so the complexity of their societies increases, with a corresponding increase in external randomness. Read this.
Our machines should be non-binary, decentralised and unknowing. The non-binary quality of our desired machines also opens them up to a whole body of thought we haven’t so far considered, but that should be central to a rethinking of what computers could be.
We need to broaden our perspective
The world is not what we think it is. We are too narrow. Just because you cannot see, feel or hear it does not mean it does not exist. That is OK, but we are also too stupid and arrogant to accept that there is much more to nature than we are aware of. Much more between heaven and earth, even. We need to start with a re-definition of intelligence and then the acceptance that we are killing, abusing, and ignoring the intelligence that could save us and our planet.
Other books to read
- Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense
- Prometheus Rising
- Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World
- Uncharted: How to Map the Future